Tag Archive | hymns

“Now Thank We All Our God”

I’m almost done writing the first draft of my next book. My first two books in this series about the stories behind hymns were focused on hymns on a particular theme. My first book was a small book about the stories of 31 hymns that were based on the Psalms. My second book had 51 stories about hymns based on the theme of peace and comfort.

My current book is about seasonal hymns – the stories behind hymns written to celebrate the seasons of the church year from Advent and Christmas, through Easter and Pentecost, and ending with Christ the King Sunday. I’m also including hymns written to celebrate national holidays, like Thanksgiving. Of the 120 hymn stories in this book, I just finished drafting the story of the 114th hymn, “Now Thank We All Our God.”

The pandemic has provided me an atmosphere that’s very conducive to writing. If I’m supposed to stay at home and avoid seeing people I don’t live with, sitting at my computer to research the history of hymns is the perfect thing to do. I started writing this book in March. I’ll admit, it was a little hard to focus on Advent hymns during Lent, and Lenten hymns during the beautiful sunny days of summer. I’m finally caught up, and am now in sync. I’m writing about Thanksgiving hymns just in time for Thanksgiving.

Which leads me into why I’m writing this blog post today. Not only is “Now Thank We All Our God” a hymn of thankfulness that is appropriate for this time of year, the hymn was written in 1636, during the peak of the plague that spread throughout Europe – a time we can somewhat identify with this year, the year of our own pandemic. Because the parallels between 1636 and 2020 are so notable, I decided to share the story on my blog.


“NOW THANK WE ALL OUR GOD”

I’m writing this on Sunday, November 15, 2020, less than two weeks before Thanksgiving. This is the year of the Corona Virus, COVID-19. Public Health officials are urging us to stay home for Thanksgiving – to NOT gather with friends and family. The risk of spreading the virus is too great. It’s easy to feel disappointed or depressed by the havoc the virus has wreaked on our country and the whole world this year. This Thanksgiving is not a time that many of us are inclined to feel very thankful.

Almost 400 years ago, the world was in a similar predicament. The Thirty Years War was raging and the plague was spreading throughout Europe. In 1636 Martin Rinkart, a Lutheran pastor in the walled city of Eilenburg, Germany, wrote the hymn, “Now Thank We All Our God.” Throughout the Thirty Years War, Eilenburg, as a walled city, was flooded with refugees seeking safety. That resulted in overcrowding, widespread hunger, and disease. Also, the city was sacked three times during the war, once by the Austrian Army and twice by the Swedish Army.

By the mid 1630s, Rinkart was the only pastor still alive in the city, and he was left with the task of officiating at the funerals of everyone who died – sometimes as many as 50 funerals in a day. One was for his wife.

Despite this horrible situation, Rinkart regularly invited refugees into his home for meals, even though he barely had enough food for his own family. He wrote “Now Thank We All Our God” as a prayer to be sung before a meal. The first verse expresses gratitude to God for his “countless gifts of love.” The second verse is a petition for God’s continued care. The last verse praises God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit – “the one eternal God.”

During his ministry, Rinkart wrote 65 other hymns, but this is the one that is still in wide use. Even today it is one of the most frequently sung hymns in German churches.

In the 1850s, Catherine Winkworth, an English hymn writer and educator traveled in Germany and became very interested in German hymns. She selected about 400 German hymns, translated them into English, and published four hymn books of German hymns in English. She is the person who brought “Now Thank We All Our God” to the English-speaking world.

This year may be the perfect year to sing or read “Now Thank We All Our God” before we eat our Thanksgiving dinner, just as the author intended it to be sung – as a prayer before a meal.

Now thank we all our God with hearts and hands and voices,
who wondrous things has done, in whom this world rejoices;
who, from our mothers’ arms, has blest us on our way
with countless gifts of love, and still is ours today.

Oh, may this bounteous God through all our life be near us,
with ever joyful hearts and blessed peace to cheer us,

and keep us all in grace, and guide us when perplexed,
and free us from all harm in this world and the next.

All praise and thanks to God the Father now be given,
the Son, and Spirit blest, who reign in highest heaven,
and one eternal God, whom earth and heaven adore;
for thus it was, is now, and shall be evermore.

Progress

imagesLast week I was at our Christmas Mountain timeshare in Wisconsin Dells again for a 4-day, solitary getaway. I packed heavier than usual this time. It took me 9 trips to bring everything from the car into the condo. I had one small suitcase with a few clothes, 3 briefcases full of books and notebooks, my computer, my piano keyboard with its ironing board-like stand and folding bench, a step stool so I can reach the top shelves of the kitchen cupboards (where the wine glasses are kept), an ice chest, and a bag of groceries. I’m not a backpacker when I travel. I like to have everything with me that I might “need.” Needless to say, I make myself comfortable in my 1100-square-foot timeshare.

I spent most of my 4 days sleeping, reading, working on my latest writing project, and going for walks when it wasn’t raining or snowing. I had a nice, relaxing time, and I made good progress on my writing project.

fullsizeoutput_2052Several months ago, when I stopped blogging weekly, I defined my next major writing project to be a daily devotional book that will be reflections on 365 of my favorite hymns. I started the project last fall by creating a list of all my favorite hymns and sorting them into the most appropriate month for each hymn.

By October, I was ready to start writing about the hymns for November – mostly hymns related to All Saints Day and Thanksgiving. I did my research on the background of each of those 30 hymns, and I contemplated my personal reasons for liking each hymn.

I designed a 2-page spread to follow for each hymn. The left page will include the hymn title, the tune name, the author of the hymn text including a brief bio of the author, the composer of the tune including a brief bio of the composer, the scripture the hymn is based on, and finally the story I want to tell about the significance of the hymn – what will make the book a devotional rather than just an annotated index to hymns I like. The right page will be a lead sheet for the hymn. I plan to create these lead sheets myself using Finale music writing software in order to address copyright concerns.

I have done most of this thinking, organizing, and writing during a few 2- or 3- day writing retreats at Christmas Mountain over the last several months. At home I’m too busy with other things to focus on such a big project. Over the past 10 years, most of my Christmas Mountain getaways have involved some writing – either writing blog posts or working on bigger projects like this.

fullsizeoutput_2051Late last fall when I had about a quarter of the November hymn devotions drafted, I decided to jump ahead to December’s hymns.

When I was about half done with December’s hymns, I decided to jump ahead to January’s hymns.

When I finished writing all 31 of January’s hymn devotions, I decided to change my approach. Rather than organizing the hymns seasonally, I decided to come up with 12 themes or styles of music, and to organize my favorite hymns within those 12 categories.

Each month will have a particular focus, rather than just being a collection of 30 or so separate hymns that loosely relate to the time of year. I’m currently envisioning this project as being twelve 68-page, self-published booklets. When they are all written I’ll decide whether or not I want to re-publish them as a single book.

My 12 themes, subject to change, are:

  1. Psalms
  2. God’s Love
  3. Lent
  4. Easter
  5. New Life
  6. Nature
  7. Classic Hymns
  8. Spirituals
  9. Gospel Songs
  10. Contemporary Styles
  11. Thankfulness
  12. Christmas

Obviously, many of my favorite hymns could fall into more than one category. Maybe I’ll incorporate cross references in the introduction to each section.

fullsizeoutput_204fI decided to start with Psalms because that’s where church music has it’s beginnings. In my “Introduction” to the Psalms booklet, I wrote:

God loved us so much that God gave us the ability to express ourselves through music. And God told us to use that gift. We are supposed to make music. The Bible is filled with examples of how to do that.…

The book of Psalms is often referred to as the hymnbook of the Bible. It consists of 150 poems set to music. Many of them are songs of praise addressed directly to God. Others are laments, sometimes blaming God for the sorry state the singer is in. Some of the Psalms plead with God for help. All the Psalms can be viewed as tools that can help us express our feelings to God, all kinds of feelings, both good and bad, or maybe it’s better to say happy and sad, peaceful and frustrated….

Over the years, many of these Psalm-based hymns have become favorites of mine. I can identify with the words, and the music helps me express the feelings within my soul….

I started the Psalm booklet with what is perhaps the most widely sung song throughout the English-speaking world today, Psalm 100, “All People That on Earth Do Dwell.” This well-known paraphrase of Psalm 100 was written by William Kethe for the Anglo-Genevan Psalter, published in 1561. The hymn has been published in more than 1,000 hymnals since that time. It is usually sung to a tune called “OLD HUNDREDTH,” composed by Louis Bourgeois in the mid-1500s.

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But this isn’t the only hymn out there that’s based on Psalm 100. About a hundred years later, Thomas Ken, an Anglican priest, wrote another paraphrase of Psalm 100, “Praise God from Whom All Blessings Flow,” often referred to as the “Doxology.” This hymn is also sung to the “OLD HUNDREDTH” tune. (This is the hymn we sang every Sunday while the ushers brought our offerings to the front of the church in the Methodist church where I grew up. We also sang it as the blessing at potlucks.)

About the same time this hymn was first being sung in England, Joachim Neander, a German Reformed Church teacher, wrote a much looser paraphrase of Psalm 100, and adapted a German folk tune to serve as the music for “Praise to the Lord, the Almighty.” This tune is now referred to as “LOBE DEN HERREN.” Two hundred years later, Neander’s paraphrase was translated into English by Catherine Winkworth. Her translation of this hymn has been published in more than 300 hymnals.

Over the centuries, many other hymns have been written based closely or loosely on Psalm 100. One of the most recent hymns that falls into the “loosely” category is “Halle, Halle, Hallelujah” written by prolific contemporary hymn writer Marty Haugen. He used a Caribbean folk tune to carry his joyful hymn.

The first 8 pages of the Psalms section of my devotional hymns project are devoted to Psalm 100, as expressed in these 4 hymns.

037615d43a4eb23542337b122c5d54d1The original song writer of Psalm 100 must be delighted to know how far and wide this Psalm has spread, especially considering that the Psalm begins with the words, “Make a joyful noise unto the LORD, all ye lands! Serve the LORD with gladness; Come before His presence with singing…” [Psalm 100:1-2 KJV] Millions of people have been singing this song of praise for thousands of years. I’m delighted to be counted among them!

That’s why I’m committed to undertaking this large writing project. I want to become even more aware of how valuable God’s gift of music is, and I want to share that awareness with others.

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“I Saw Jesus”

Early one morning a few days ago, I walked by Emma’s* room on my way to the kitchen to make a pot of coffee. I heard Emma talking, so I stepped inside her room to be sure she was okay. Emma is one of our two assisted living residents. She is 91, has dementia, and is quite frail, but she usually has a very cheerful disposition. We have cared for her in our home for more than three years.

Emma was lying in bed. Her eyes were wide open. I asked her if she was feeling okay, or if she needed anything. She looked at me and said, very clearly, “I saw Jesus!”

I thought I had heard her right, but to be sure, I asked her, “Did you say you saw Jesus?”

“Yes,” she responded. “I saw Jesus.”

“Did he know you?” I asked her.

“Yes.” Then the moment of clarity had passed. She continued to say words, but I couldn’t understand what she was trying to tell me. She looked very happy and was quite excited as she continued to talk.

For the past ten years, my partner, Mim, and I have been providing assisted living services in our home. We usually have two residents living with us. All twenty of the residents who have lived with us thus far have been quite frail, and many of them have had some degree of dementia. Most have come to live with us until they are ready to pass on to their next life. One resident lived with us for only a day before she passed on. Another resident lived with us almost four years. Most live a year or two.

Mim and I have learned that it is quite common for our residents to see visitors from heaven when they get closer to the end of their lives. The visitors may be angels, friends and family members who have preceded them in death, and now Jesus himself. Unfortunately, Mim and I don’t get to see these visitors. Only the resident can see them, and the resident is very comforted by the visit. The visitors seem to be here to alleviate any fears our residents may have about moving on to the other side.

My conversation with Emma last week brought to mind the song, “I’ve Just Seen Jesus” (words by Gloria Gaither, music by William J. Gaither and Danny Daniels). A few of the words are:

I’ve just seen Jesus
And I’ll never be the same again.

That prompted me to think about how music helps us both understand and express what we’ve learned about God’s love through our life experiences. Over the next few weeks I’ll have the perfect opportunity to share these thoughts. Pastor Joan Gunderman and I are working together on creating a Lenten e-retreat entitled “The Scandal of Lent.” Joan’s part is to write reflections based on the key themes of the book, The Scandal of Lent, by Robert Kysar. My part is to write reflections based on Lenten hymns, gospel songs, and spirituals for each week of Lent. Each reflection will include information about the song as well as links to online performances of the song. Our intent is that everyone who participates in this e-retreat will be able to say along with Emma, “I saw Jesus,” or at least be able to say, “I understand more about God’s love now than I did before, and I’ll never be the same again.”

For more information about our Lenten e-retreat, click here.

* To protect the privacy of our resident, I’ve changed her name to Emma in this blog post.